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NBCSports.com’s 50 best players in 5 years: Kyrie Irving, Deandre Ayton, players 25-21

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What is the NBA going to look like in five years? Who will be the game’s best players? The All-Stars, the guys on the cover of 2K24, the guys with signature shoe deals?

As a fun summer project, the NBA team at NBCSports.com put our heads together, pulled out our crystal balls, and tried to project forward who would be the 50 best players in the NBA in five years — in the summer of 2024. We took into account a player’s age, his potential ceiling and how likely he is to reach it, injury history, and more. The team working on this included Dan Feldman, Tom Haberstroh, Rob Dauster, Tommy Beer, Steve Alexander, and Kurt Helin (and thanks to Tess Quinlan and Mia Zanzucchi for the design help).

There were plenty of disagreements (and we don’t expect you to agree with all of our list), but here it is.

Here is the link to here are the links to players 50-4645-41, 40-36, 35-31 and 30-26., and These are players 25-21 on our list.

25. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander landed in an almost perfect spot as a rookie — playing for a smart, player-friendly coach in Doc Rivers, who built up his point guard’s confidence, showed him how to be professional, and how to prepare. Gilgeous-Alexander started 73 games for a 48-win playoff team, averaging 10.8 points and 3.3 assists per game — as a rookie. His potential shone through as the season wore on, and in the playoffs Rivers trusted him to be matched up on Stephen Curry.

All of that is why Oklahoma City demanded Gilgeous-Alexander in the Paul George trade (the Clippers didn’t want to give him up, but had no real choice).

How Gilgeous-Alexander will develop from here on out will be interesting to watch. His role is changing, and the playing environment and coaching style is changing. He’s not going to be Russell Westbrook — nobody is, plus they have very different games. Gilgeous-Alexander is more traditional point guard, more game manager, not an explosive isolation specialist who gets buckets.

As OKC drafts more and more young players over the course of the coming years, as they rebuild, Gilgeous-Alexander will be asked to be more of a leader, to pass along the lessons she learned to the young players that put on the Thunder blue. He’s got the maturity and game to handle it. Thunder fans are going to love him.
—Kurt Helin

24. John Collins

Collins is ranked in front of LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, and can topple just about anything or anyone. (I’ll count it.) Don’t let the pogo-stick bounce obscure the burgeoning skill-set that Collins boasts already. 

In his final game of the season, Collins scored 20 points, pulled down 25 boards, tallied six assists and hit a corner three for good measure. You know the last four players that have registered at least 20 points, 25 rebounds and six assists in a single game like Collins did? Fellow Demon Deacon Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, Shaquille O’Neal and Charles Barkley. Not bad company.

I made the declaration earlier this summer that Collins and Trae Young could be this generation’s Amar’e Stoudemire and Steve Nash. I stand by that. Collins may not be as strong and polished offensively as Stoudemire, but they play with the same force around the basket. Every time Collins dunks, you wonder what the basket ever did to him to deserve that assault.

Collins is still a work in progress on the defensive end. Stoudemire never really figured it out — hear ex-Sun staffer Amin Elhassan explain why at the 59:45 mark on a recent Habershow! — but Collins is still 21 years old with the physical tools to get there. If he wants to jump even higher on this list, that’s the place to start. Even still, John the Baptist is a nightly 20-and-10 threat and to me, will be an All-Star in 2019-20 — and not just relegated to the dunk contest.
—Tom Haberstroh

23. Kyrie Irving

Kyrie Irving wanted out of the shadow of LeBron James in Cleveland and found in Boston that being the guy in the center of the spotlight — the guy expected to lead both on and off the court — was not so easy. How ugly it got this past season in Boston will leave a scar on Irving’s Hall of Fame resume.

None of that changes the fact he is an elite point guard in his prime at age 27. Brooklyn is getting a guy with some of the best handles in the league, a career 39 percent shooter from three, and a guy who has stepped up on the biggest of stages and had monster playoff games (he has a dozen 30+ point playoff games, and a ring). In five years, at age 32, Irving will be past his prime, but those skills will not have faded so much as to drop him out of the top 25 in the league.

Brooklyn will help shape Irving’s legacy — he goes to a playoff team with a strong established culture through coach Kenny Atkinson, an organization with good young players already seen on this list in Jarrett Allen and Caris LeVert. In a year, once healthy, Kevin Durant will join them and form a squad that should be a title contender in the East. The questions abound: How does Irving fit in? How does his game evolve? His leadership skills?

In 15 years or so when he enters the Hall of Fame and we think about Irving, we will think of the Game 7 title-winner for Cleveland, and from there his career went… where? There is a lot still to be determined about Irving’s legacy, but in five years we know he’s still going to be a quality point guard who is a dangerous shooter from deep and can win a team a lot of games.
—Kurt Helin

22. Ja Morant

Ja Morant has the potential to be a special point guard in the NBA, but it is not simply because of his off-the-charts athletic ability. To be clear, that helps. Russell Westbrook, John Wall, healthy Derrick Rose. Those guys are the elite of the elite athletically – like Morant – and they are the players that have helped usher in a new era of point guard play at the NBA level.

Now, Morant is not quite as developed physically as those three are. The best comparison in that sense is probably De'Aaron Fox, another spindly guard with sprinter’s speed and a jump shot that needs fine-tuning. He may not be there yet, but you will see him later on this list. We like him. The difference between Morant and Fox is passing ability. Morant has yet to play an NBA game, but I firmly believe he is going to be among the ten best players in the entire NBA when it comes to court vision, passing and the ability to make plays and create shots for teammates out of ball-screens. He’s a different player, a different caliber athlete and a much different shooter than Trae Young, but when it comes to their ability to read the floor and make every pass they need to be able to make, Morant is on the same level entering the league as Young.

He has a chance, in the next 5-10 years, to assert himself as the best point guard in the NBA. That’s what his ceiling is.
—Rob Dauster

21. Deandre Ayton

Ayton’s impressive numbers as a rookie — 16.3 points and 10.3 rebounds per game, shooting 58.5 percent — would win Rookie of the Year a lot of seasons. (Last season was a special rookie class, however, and Ayton finished third in the voting, making All-Rookie first team.) As a rookie Ayton showed impressive footwork in and around the basket, he’s a good cutter off the ball, makes smart and quick decisions (those decisions can improve, but for a rookie he did well), and decent passing skills. Considering he did this on a Suns team without a quality point guard to consistently feed him the rock is even more impressive (Ricky Rubio, who spent the last handful of years throwing lobs to Rudy Gobert, takes over at the point in Phoenix and that will help Ayton get the ball in positions he can do damage.)

Ayton is going to be an offensive force in five years, at age 26, especially if he adds some range to his shot and the Suns let him explore other aspects of his game. However, how high he ultimately should be on this list will depend on a couple of other things. The big one is his defense — he struggled on this end as a rookie, with his recognition and as a rim protector. Ayton needs to become a defensive anchor for the Suns. The way the NBA is evolving, an offense-only big man who is not a good rim protector has a limited role (think Enes Kanter). Ayton is young — in five years will be just 26 — and after the All-Star break he showed signs of improvement on that end. Ayton has time to become a better defender, but that needs to be the priority. Last season, then Suns’ coach Igor Kokoskov threw Ayton out to guard guys like LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo, which speaks to Ayton’s athleticism and showed some of the potential he must tap into. It’s a start. For the Suns to reach their potential with the Ayton/Booker duo, Ayton must be a force on both ends.

The other question: How does Ayton evolve in a league where there are fewer traditional NBA centers and bigs are prized more for their skills and shooting than ability to back someone down in the post or just catch lobs. Ayton has the tools to be more than what we saw from him. As a rookie, 51 percent of Ayton’s shots came at the rim and 77 percent in the paint — and he made those efficiently. On the baseline just outside the key he can hit, too. Almost 90 percent of his shots come off zero or one-dribble — he’s making quick decisions, catching and finishing, something likely not to change with Rubio getting him the ball.

But ultimately Ayton has to be a threat to do more on offense to really grow his game. To be an offensive force as a true center in this league a player’s game has to look more like Joel Embiid (or a healthy DeMarcus Cousins). Ayton has the athleticism and potential to get there. Will he put in the work and reach that potential is the question — and the answer will determine just how far the Booker/Ayton pairing will go.
—Kurt Helin

Report: Stephen Curry targeting return for Warriors-Wizards on March 1

Stephen Curry
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Stephen Curry has been busy since breaking his hand in the Warriors’ fourth game – challenging Chris Mullin in pop-a-shot, recruiting Giannis Antetokounmpo, sideline reporting and nothing else.

When will Curry return to his main role?

Marcus Thompson II of The Athletic:

The question is not if Stephen Curry is coming back this season, but when. And, from what I’ve been told, you might want to clear your schedule for March 1. The Warriors host the Washington Wizards that night.

That’s not set in stone, of course. More like a target date. But expect a return by the face of the franchise before next season.

I wouldn’t get too hung up on the exact date. That’s a ways off. But Curry having a specific target in mind speaks to his progress.

Golden State is the only Western Conference team not in the playoff race. It’s too late for Curry to change the arc of the Warriors’ season. They’re headed toward excellent draft position.

But Curry is a basketball player, and if he’s healthy enough to play, he’ll play. Returning this season could set him up to thrive next season, when Golden State – with Klay Thompson healthy plus whatever D'Angelo Russell and a high pick become – will again hold big-time potential.

Curry returning would also make the Warriors more entertaining the last month and a half of the season. It’s important for them to keep their big-spending fans satisfied.

Watch Klay Thompson’s emotional jersey retirement at Washington State

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Klay Thompson will forever be No. 1 at Washington State.

In his three seasons as a Cougar, Thompson set the school record for three pointers — 242 — and set the school’s single-season record for points scored (733), became the school’s third all-time leading scorer (1,756) and averaged 17.9 points, 4.8 rebounds, 2.6 assists and 1.3 steals a game.

We all know what happened next: He was drafted No. 11 by the Warriors and went on to an NBA career that includes three NBA titles with the Golden State Warriors, twice being named All-NBA and five times an All-Star, he holds the NBA record for most made threes in a game (14), and he has a gold medal from the Rio Olympics. And he’s still adding to that legacy.

Saturday, Thompson had his No. 1 jersey retired by the school.

Stephen Curry was in Pullman for the ceremony.

Even LeBron James shouted it out on his Instagram story.

Thompson is the second men’s basketball number retired by WSU, the other being Steve Puidokas’ No. 55 (the school’s all-time leading scorer, he played there in the 1970s).

 

 

Luka Doncic on Kings: ‘I honestly thought they were going to pick me’

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Luka Doncic, in just his second season and at age 20, is an MVP candidate who is showing himself to be an elite, franchise-changing player.

Which lead fans in Phoenix and Sacramento to ask, “How did we pass on this guy in the draft?” He was the MVP of the second-best league on the planet at age 18, what led two teams to pass on him and a third — the Atlanta Hawks — to trade him on draft night in June 2018.

Doncic himself thought he was going to the Kings’ at No. 2, he told Sam Amick of The Athletic.

“They came to Madrid (to see him play for Real Madrid and to share a dinner on June 5, 2018),” the 20-year-old Doncic told The Athletic about the Kings’ contingent’s visit during the draft process. “They came with the owner. Everybody came, so I honestly thought they were going to pick me.”

So, I asked, was it ever made clear to him why they didn’t?

“I mean, I think it’s because of Euroleague; it’s different basketball,” Doncic said.

Kings GM Vlade Divac instead drafted Marvin Bagley III, believing the Duke big man would be a better fit next to emerging point guard De'Aaron Fox. Bagley has put up nice numbers this season, 14.2 points and 6.8 rebounds a game, but missed 30 games with a foot injury. He has not looked like a franchise-changing player.

Sacramento isn’t the only team where fans have questions about the top of the 2018 draft. In the Suns case, they drafted Deandre Ayton out of in-state Arizona, a move that it is rumored to have been pushed by owner Robert Sarver (and a number of teams had Ayton and Doncic rated close to equal, which is a misread of the increasingly positionless direction of the NBA, but that’s another topic). Atlanta drafted Doncic third and traded him to Dallas, but got back Trae Younghimself on an All-Star trajectory in his second season — and another first-round pick. Young says it is still too early to judge that trade.

Meanwhile, the Kings appear on track to miss the playoffs for a 14th straight season. The luster of the beautiful new Golden 1 Center arena is starting to wear off, and fans in the California capital want some wins. Hard to blame them, but they may need to be patient. Again.

Royce O’Neale agrees to four-year, $36 million contract extension to stay in Utah

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Royce O'Neale is a name casual NBA fans may not recognize.

However, GMs around the league recognize him is the kind of role player teams need to win. O’Neale is asked to guard the opposing team’s best wing player nightly, while on the other end of the court he’s shooting 44.3 percent from three. He’s become a critical part of Utah’s rotation.

So the Jazz have locked him up with a contract extension, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

The Jazz — who have won 16-of-18 — just got Mike Conley back in the rotation, and have jumped up to a top-four seed in the West (as of this writing). Things are looking up, and also they have set themselves up well financially for the future.

Bigger bills are coming in Utah, in the summer of 2021 the Jazz will need to max out Donovan Mitchell with an extension plus re-sign Rudy Gobert. Which is why locking in a quality role player like O’Neale at a fair price now is a smart move.